Tuesday, June 13, 2017

What I Learned at the California Crime Writers Conference


It’s Monday morning in Culver City on a gorgeous Southern California day. From my hotel room window, I can see reflected in the mirrored building across the parking lot the low peaks of Baldwin Hills, the purple of a jacaranda tree just coming into bloom, and the traffic on Hwy. 405—now at a virtual standstill heading north, the direction we need to drive to get home to Santa Cruz.

A good time to set down some of my thoughts about the weekend. I came down here for the California Crime Writers Conference (CCWC), a terrific event presented every two years by the Los Angeles chapters of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, that features panels and workshops on the craft of writing, marketing, publicity, and crime scene and investigative forensics.

But as all of us writers know, the most important part of conferences like these is hanging out with the other attendees, because mystery writers are the most warm, generous, and fun people on the planet. I never fail to come away from CCWC feeling inspired, recharged, and ready to write with renewed vigor.

dinner with a gang of writers at CCWC

Two of the highlights of this year’s conference were the special guests, Hallie Ephron and William Kent Krueger. Hallie gave the keynote talk at Saturday’s lunch, during which she provided a list of her top ten pieces of advice for writers. Since number one was “take notes,” I did as directed, and am therefore able to pass the advice along to you. (I may have gotten some of this wrong, however, as she spoke quickly and I do not know shorthand. Sorry, Hallie, if I did!)

Hallie gives a workshop about characters driving plot

1) Take notes. Hallie recounted the story of how, when her famous screenwriter mother was dying at age 57 of cirrhosis of the liver brought on by alcoholism, the mother’s equally famous daughter, Nora (Hallie’s older sister), was by her beside. “You’re a writer,” the mom said to Nora. “Take notes.”

2) Make your own space for writing. This is both physical—a place where you can be alone to write—but also in your head. Don’t be distracted by Facebook, email, etc. If you use a timer and write solidly, without interruption, for only 40 minutes a day, you’ll have a book in six months.

3) Pay attention to things that interest you. Hallie used the example of the scene in the Hitchcock film, Suspicion, where Cary Grant carries the glass of milk upstairs to Jane Fontaine, and how the shadows grow sinister and the milk seems to glow in the glass. (Hitchcock put a light in the glass, Hallie informed us, to obtain this effect.) Take note of the little things—like Hitchcock did with a simple glass of milk—and how they can be used to great effect in your writing.

4) Be your own cheerleader. Hallie has posted over her desk a fortune cookie she once got, saying “You will succeed in a far our convention.”

5) Read. Only by reading others’ works will you know what good writing sounds like.

6) Hold your nose and write. Even when you don’t want to, force yourself to keep going. “Gallop in the direction of more; inch towards better,” she said. (This may be someone else’s quote, but I couldn’t find it anywhere online.) As noted by Hallie’s sister, Nora, “The hardest thing about writing is writing.”

7) Slash and burn. Delete anything that’s boring. Beware of too much backstory and coincidences (never have more than one in a story). But when you do cut, save it in a separate file, as it may be perfect for a later work!

8) Prepare for rejection. When you send out queries, have the next five ready to go. Aim high—don’t take a bad deal just because you’re afraid of not getting another.

9) Embrace your flaws. Recognize your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Always be flexible and listen. Don’t be thin-skinned. And, most importantly, realize that only a fool would write a novel.

10) Don’t wait to be published to celebrate. Celebrate after you write your first ten thousand words. And after you finish your novel. And after you do your revisions. And when someone in your writing group laughs during your reading. And when you get asked for a partial submission. And when you get a personalized rejection.

And finally, she said (yes, this one did go to 11): Get used to it. Make it the journey that counts.

After giving us her top ten (plus one) pieces of advice, Hallie told us about being asked, “What made you decide to write mysteries?”

“Because my sisters hadn’t written one,” was her immediate response.

But then she provided the real answer (though I’m guessing the facetious one had more than a grain of truth to it): Genre fiction is less scary than “literature,” because there are rules and reader expectations, such as the three-act structure, the big confrontation at the end, etc. But just as with highbrow literature, you can include all the personal, gut-wrenching issues in mysteries, as well.

William Kent Krueger was our keynote speaker the next day.

Kent (as he’s known) at his workshop

Because I didn’t take notes during his keynote speech, however, here’s a brief recap, instead, of his excellent workshop on how to build suspense:
1) Classic suspense depends on conflict, either between the characters or within the protagonist. Every scene in your novel should have some tension or conflict. Conflict equals visceral suspense.

2) You must have a good hook, right from the start, to pull the reader in.

3) Readers must care about, have an emotional investment in the characters

4) Delay gratification in readers by not meeting their expectations. Suspense is about what will happen next. Ask the question, but then delay the answer. The longer you draw out time, the tauter the suspense.

5) Create obstacles for your protagonist. Insert complications into the story. Isolating the hero is a great way of doing this.

6) Up the ante. Just when your readers think they know what’s going on, make it worse—far worse.

7) Set the clock ticking. Give your protagonist a limited time to save the day.

8) Stretch time. Slow the countdown to the danger (this is similar to no. 4.) Some of the best suspense writing takes several pages to tell what happened in just a few seconds. Kent gave the example of a bomb under a table of poker players. Having the bomb go off with no notice to the reader creates no suspense. But if you show the bomb with 10 seconds left, then go to the players, then go back to the bomb with 5 seconds left, etc., that’s suspenseful.

9) Save the worst for last. All hope is lost. The dramatic climax of the story. (But note that, in a series, it doesn’t work to put your protagonist in danger, because we all know he/she will return for the next book. It’s far better to put someone the hero cares about in danger.)

10) The calm at the storm’s end. Have a last scene where loose ends are tied up, we get to exhale in relief after all the tension that’s come before.

Here’s the whiteboard chart Kent wrote out for us:


If any of you crime writers out there are considering attending a craft conference in the future, the next CCWC will be held in June of 2019, and I heartily recommend that you attend!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Amadeus


My newest Sally Solari mystery, A Measure of Murder, has Sally joining a local chorus, even though she’s crazy busy working at both her restaurants, Solari’s and Gauguin, and doesn’t really have time for all the rehearsals and practicing on her own she’ll need to do. But the group is singing her favorite piece of music—the Mozart Requiem—which Sally’s been obsessed with since high school, when she fell in love with the movie, Amadeus. So she decides she’ll just have to make the time.


Sally isn’t alone in her love. That film (adapted from the play of the same name by Peter Shaffer) has special meaning for me, as well. When it was released in 1984, I was just becoming interested in opera. My friend Valerie (with whom I had played in the Cabrillo College orchestra—me on clarinet, she on violin) used to get together to drink wine and listen to operas together, and when Amadeus came out, we went together to see it. Both of us were much taken with the movie, and started listened to more Mozart afterwards, including Don Giovanni and his Requiem in D minor.

I met my now-wife, Robin, the following year, and the first evening we spent together I apparently raved to her about Amadeus. She went home and searched the whole Bay Area for a theater screening the film—no simple task in that pre-internet era—and finally found one in San Francisco. She then called to ask me on a date to go up to the City to see the movie, but alas, I was out of town for the weekend and didn’t get her message until after it had left the theater. But wasn’t that romantic of her?

Years later, while writing the manuscript that would become A Measure of Murder, I watched the film again, this time on DVD. And as I watched, I pondered—as I had many times before—the title of the movie. Although Amadeus was Mozart’s middle name,* no one refers to him that way; it’s always either “Mozart” or “Wolfgang.”

Tom Hulce as “Wolfie” in the film

But then again, neither of those two names has the ring of the name Amadeus—which rolls off the tongue in a lovely way—so I’ve always figured that was the reason for the film’s title.

But lying in bed after watching the movie again that night, I started thinking about the Salieri character—how he had dedicated his life to the love of God and wanted nothing more than the ability to compose beautiful music for His glorification. But Salieri becomes possessed with fury that his God has endowed the “obscene” boor Mozart with such musical genius, making Salieri—a devout Catholic—seem a mediocre composer in comparison. Salieri therefore rejects God, and decides to dedicate the rest of his life to destroying this “creature” whom God has chosen over him. (Yes, yes, this story line has nothing to do with the real life Salieri, but it’s good fun for a fictional retelling!)

And then I thought again about the title of the film, and it hit me—like one of those light bulbs in a cartoon.

light bulbs of Thomas Edison
at the Huntington Library, Pasadena

Amadeus. Ama Deus. That’s Latin for “love of God.” Duh! How could I have never thought of it before—it seemed so obvious now.

Because that is, of course, the irony in the film: It’s Salieri who has dedicated his life to the love of God. He is truly the “ama-deus” of the story. But it’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart whom God has chosen as His vehicle for composing glorious music.

Very clever Mr. Shaffer.


*(Mozart’s given middle name was actually Theophilus, but he preferred the Latin translation of this Greek name and so used it, instead. My grandfather was named Theophilus Parvin Cook and didn’t go by that name either, so I guess my family has something in common with the brilliant composer.)

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Wizard of Oz, Alphabetized--Yes, Really


I just discovered something truly amazing. It’s a remix/scrambling of the classic 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz, so that every single word of dialogue and song is arranged alphabetically. Yes, it sounds weird, and it is. But it’s also incredibly wonderful (one of the re-occurring words in the film). And beautiful. And utterly fascinating.

The project (entitled of Oz The Wizard—the title, alphabetized) was the brainchild and creation of Matt Bucy, probably best known as co-producer and cinematographer of the fan fiction series, Star Trek Continues. (You can read about Matt and his Oz project, as well as watch the amazing film, here.)


The other night, Robin, my sister Laura (who told us about the project), and I sat down after dinner to view the movie, thinking we’d check it out for ten or fifteen minutes, be somewhat amused, and then switch to Mozart in the Jungle. But no. We were mesmerized and ended up watching until the very end. (Oddly, we all thought the movie seemed shorter in this rearranged version, even though they are, of course, the exact same length.)

The most obvious effect of the alphabetization is to highlight the specific words used in the screenplay and lyrics. And, not surprisingly, the first one to appear—“a”—appears a whole lot. As do “the,” “you,” “of,” and any number of pronouns, articles, and prepositions. But these also flash by quickly, as they are throwaway words in the dialogue. It’s the other words, which the actors draw out and give emphasis to, that are more interesting.

As a writer, I was fascinated by the way this project showcases language and syntax—for instance, the frequency of certain words is made obvious by their being grouped together. Take the word “just.” Now, we writers are continually told to limit our use of this word, but as I watched of Oz The Wizard, it became clear that “just” occurs many, many times in the film. Yet it’s never jumped out at me when watching the movie in its original format. This is because that’s the way folks speak; we use the word all the time. So maybe it is okay not to get too stressed about using “just” in my own books (especially in dialogue).


In addition, certain colorful words that appear only once—generally spoken by either the Wizard or the Cowardly Lion—stand out ever so much more in this version of the film, isolated as they are, and made the three of us howl with glee. (The last word of the film, uttered by the Lion, was especially fun. But I won’t give it away here, other than to tell you it begins with a Z.)

And then there are the repeated words from the songs: “somewhere,” “wizard,” “Oz,” “follow,” “yellow,” “road,” “dead,” you get the idea. When spliced so they appear all together in quick succession, they end up creating their own new little songs, which are wonderfully melodic. (The “dead” song was particularly chipper, which we found amusing.)

Oh, and the way the editor, Bucy, groups the sounds (arf!, ahhh, sigh, ai!) is good fun, as well. (I love, love, the Toto scenes all strung together.)

In addition, watching the film cut up in this strange, new way, I found myself drawn to artistic and technical aspects of the film I’d never really noticed before: the beautifully rendered woods in the background during the snow scene; the shape and color of the walls and towers surrounding the City of Oz.

Finally, because you are seeing each different word chronologically each time it appears in the film, you are, in effect, watching mini versions of the entire story over and over again, especially with words that occur many times. Yet each mini version gives a slightly different narrative—kind of like a G-rated Rashomon in Technicolor.


I don’t believe this concept would have worked with any other movie. The Wizard of Oz is so ingrained in our collective consciousness that most Americans (of a certain age, at least) have the script virtually memorized. So, for example, when the frame of the Tin Man saying “heart” flashes by, we know immediately where it belongs in the whole and why it’s important.

It’s funny, but watching of Oz The Wizard in a way gave deeper meaning to the original film. By providing an entirely new way of seeing it, the project made me think about the movie in an entirely new way. But I guess that’s what good art is all about.

So thank you Matt Bucy, for this truly original and mind-opening project!